Pulling back teeth

Notes on a big happy smile.

Chicago airport.

We smile more than you might think. Walking down the street you see thousands of smiles, small. They are a way of saying: I am not a threat. I am in your way but I don't mean any harm. I am bumping against you on the subway but I don't want to hurt you. We could be friends. It's a meaningless gesture. How is it that pulling back lips is peaceful, inviting? But there it is.

The other is not smiling at me; they are protecting themselves, sending a signal. Flesh and muscle move, chemicals are released the turnstile turns. I am on the escalator towards the subway station. I'm out in New York feeling kind of vague.

Humans are at their worst when in their cars. Culture falls away. Cars are bones that we can use to beat others. Any displeasure behind the windshield is transformed into burning rage. I've seen friends drive 200 uninterrupted miles at 65 miles an hour and then they come to traffic. After twenty minutes they go mad; they begin to scream and strike the steering wheel and sneer. The air conditioning is on, the iPod is patched through the stereo to provide even more choice, but the very fact that they are in this pile of moving bones but not able to move forward sends them into animal rage; they want to smash heads and suck out the brains.

At night if I leave the windows open people with expensive stereos drive by and their cars leak bass; the cars throb slowly down the block, slowly enough to make sure that everyone can hear. I remember driving with a friend when I was sixteen, going through the suburbs where he lived, and screaming as loudly as we could out the window--let them hear us moving, let them hear our dopplering voices as we moved down the street. It was urgent to be recognized.

This sense of people-as-animals is not always there. It fades and I go back to seeing people, minds piled high with culture. Smiles return to being smiles rather than significant grimaces. I smile back unafraid. Although when I am seeing people as animals I actually see them. Normally strangers are just silhouettes. Last week I sat on the train next to a coworker and said her name two or three times but she didn't see me. I was curious to see how long it would take her to notice me, so I did not wave my arms. Finally she got off the train at her stop and never realized I was three feet away. Other people are a sea of outlines, and it's a rare shape that rises out of the sea. The woman screaming at a man in a cab; the loudly begging panhandler; the drunk; the police car with sirens running; the extremely attractive well-dressed person. Not me: I am an observing silhouette emerging from an office doorway on my way somewhere else.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

That Shaggy Feeling. Soon, orphans. (May 12)

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Tickler File Forever, by Paul Ford. I'll have no one to blame but future me. (May 10)

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Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

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